Prologue: When I got to San Francisco in 1988, I expected an endless funeral procession to be moving down Castro Street – there wasn’t. Instead, I saw hundreds of boys, just like me: rather wide-eyed, somewhat stupid, and new enough on the scene to still be untouched by AIDS. I was scared, but I believed that I belonged in this place. Like all the other new guys, I suffered to get there – and I was taking a chance. For things had radically changed since we were kids: in the 1970s, for the first time – gay men proudly stepped out of the closet; in the world of pop-culture, homosexuality was no longer “queer;” The Village People, Studio 54, and “Three’s Company” reimagined gay men as masculine, fashionable, and even benignly humorous. Then, unexpectedly, everything shifted: with the advent of AIDS, it suddenly wasn’t okay to be gay; as gay men carried a deadly virus within their bodies; afterwards, no wanted to shake our hand.
Because of that – I wondered if there would be anyone left in the Castro when I arrived, but, the compulsion was strong within us all – that we were willing to gamble everything, even our lives. Yet, everyone that showed up, one summer after another, always landed with a sense of invulnerability that recklessly accompanies the vigor and foolishness of youth. Slowly, we changed – as our expectations hit the reality of what we sold our souls for; we wanted love from another man, but soon realized that receiving it always required sex in exchange; some didn’t make it beyond a few years; somehow – I survived. For ten years, I repeatedly put a gun to my head, always knowing that the chamber held a bullet with my name on it; I constantly sensed death, but soon grew comfortable with its inescapable presence. Again, the world tilted slightly on its axis, and Madonna made bisexuality cool in the 90s; science came to the rescue and afterwards HIV was no longer an immediate death sentence; by 1999, many gave up the pretense and they were partying as if it were 1979; by then, I had seen too much death – I gave up and was ready to join those I once loved and lost too soon.
In 1993, as I briefly chatted with Michael Douglas on the location set of “Basic Instinct” in San Francisco, I thought I was close to the height of sophistication and glamour. Then, as a would-be gay porn star, I couldn’t have imagined myself in my 40s; the guys I sometimes dated were in their 40s: they were older “daddies,” good for treating me to a night on the town, or for a brief feeling of security and protection that time after time came and went as quickly as the sex act. Now, at age 46, I have become a bit of a curmudgeon: I rarely go out at night, I have a very small circle of friends, attending Church is the highlight of my week, I always have a rosary in my pocket, and about the only thing I regularly watch on television are reruns of “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons.”
My sordid past, well – its Confessed and Forgiven; the memories of my dysfunctional childhood – I have dealt with those, and Christ healed them; I understand that so much pain built up inside me, that eventually it had nowhere to go – so I tried to push it down before everything came spilling out; by the time I was 18, I tried to forget and figured that the whole thing would make sense when I finally admitted that I was gay – it didn’t. Now, those motives and blind walking about with hands in front of me that found a naive kid stumbling into the gay capital of world have been revealed and resolved. My attractions to men have become minimal. I struggle less. Nevertheless, I am haunted. Not by any residual reverberations of something I did – I am haunted by the dead. Yet, these are not literal specters, but the unshakable impressions that long departed friends left upon me. Sometimes, I will hear a song that we both liked, or I will unintentionally drive by the place we met, or I’ll inadvertently come across on old photograph of us together – hating them all for leaving me, without thinking, I tear it up and throw the pieces in the trash; only, five minutes later, I am dumping everything out of the waste paper basket onto the floor and haplessly trying to find every last fragment. At these moments – I can’t stop crying.
Amid the tears, I can’t understand why I am acting like this; after all, I am no longer gay, those emotions brought on by the broken boy I once had inside me somewhat revolt in hindsight rather than bring forth any feelings of nostalgia; in addition, the sex and romance we shared now seems desperate and one-dimensional. Except I can’t forget your face, or that day I couldn’t wait to get out of class so I could be with you, and, then, how you smiled when you opened the door and saw it was me. I am 24 years old and you are 26 – Next, I hear that you died. At the near pinnacle of the AIDS crisis, I’ve grown cold: I feel sorry for a moment and move on. Over the next few years, the bodies start to pile up. I get older and realize that I am quickly destined for loneliness. Increasingly, everything and everyone I come across appears and disappears. I have sex with men, and I don’t know their first name. There’s a growing emptiness within me, and I want someone to fill it: I take a man inside me, never wanting him to pull out. For a few moments, I am fulfilled; minutes later, I am alone again – bloodied and bruised. Suddenly, everything is worse than before; but, I don’t know anything else. What the hell am I doing? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After all, we were the young and courageous ones, hatred and torment drove all of us to San Francisco; together – we would create a new world, and, finally, the happiness we deserved and so long agonized for would be ours forever. Our gay new world never turned out the way we thought it would; instead, the dream was immediately replaced by a graveyard; and I had to accept the massacre of my friends, some who were innocent, others wholly wicked, as a new form of gay martyrdom – at the time, I could just barely do that; now, it’s an impossibility.
At the beginning, not long after arriving in San Francisco: I dated an incredibly handsome, but thoroughly shell-shocked Vietnam veteran; at first I was fascinated by his endless stories of the War, of his platoon, and the buddies he lost; in his house, proudly displayed almost everywhere: were photographs of soldiers, portraits of young men in their uniforms, and informal snapshots of shirtless guys in dirty fox-holes or next to a tin bunker. Initially, I was attracted to him because he was manly in a completely unforced sort of way – a rare occurrence in the world of gay masculinity that was always posed and caricatured. However, as with the rest of us – there was an inescapable and palpable countenance of extreme sadness about him. It was everywhere: soon, I realized that he couldn’t stop talking about it, twenty years later, he was still trying to make sense of it; and, being young and preoccupied with more important things like what Madonna was doing, I got bored. He also got angrier. Oftentimes at the government, at politicians, at the world – usually involving something not related to his continuing preoccupation with the military and war. He never acted like a victim, but he had suffered under cruel conditions where fate and history placed him in the worst possible circumstances. I can only compare him to one of William Styron’s “butchered and betrayed:” “…who were but a few of the beaten and butchered and betrayed and martyred children of the earth.” Up till then, I had been relatively untouched by the AIDS deaths happening everywhere around me – that would all end with the crucial year of 1994 when four friends (including him) would quickly vanish.
One of my dearest and most troubled recollections are those that have persisted due to a friendship with an extremely lovable guy that I met in 1989; less than a year after coming to San Francisco. At first, I though this incredibly outgoing and completely fearless man from the South was nothing but a gay hick, except I quickly grasped that his own personal quest for satisfaction did not get in the way of a truly giving heart; for we all arrived at the same point of gay –self-realization with a mental list of expectations: after years of denial, we would fully express who we are; that we would no longer fear that gay sexual side of ourselves – finally throwing off the religious tendency to perceive those feelings as dirty; and, in the process, to hopefully find love. Without exception, what we found was that – you inevitably got stuck in the first two. And, for the time being, my new found friend and I were thoroughly enjoying that ability to freely and openly revel in what we thought we were – and what we thought we needed. Interestingly, most entered the scene with an initial mighty thrust, and I was very much in this group, trying to taste and see everything in a few years – inevitably leaving you disappointed and bitter. As far I could fathom: he never did that.
Having been in San Francisco for a little while longer than I, my Southern friend felt it necessary to serve as my benefactor; although I was already highly sexually experienced, he must have seen a slight and fading naiveté in me that caused him some concern; subsequently, he served as my Virgil while deliberately guiding me downwards into deeper levels of homosexual experience. Willing to experiment, but cautious – we spent numerous evenings endlessly discussing the intricacies of condom use and the benefits and drawbacks of various spermicidal jellies and lubricants. Although we had much in common, our backgrounds could not have been more different: he was self-admittedly red-neck, Dixie-land Baptist, and blue-color, while I was Italian Catholic and Nouveau riche. Despite that, we often talked about growing up alienated: with him in the Deep South and me in the more liberal bastion of the Bay Area; he vividly remembered high school terrorists who ridiculed daily his slight-wispiness and femininely pink-skinned complexion made worse by a shock of red hair; his father thought him a rather hopeless misfit when compared with a beefier sporty brother. Part of his story, I got – part I didn’t: I too was an insecure kid, but only underwent intermittent verbal harassment that never had violent connotations; this left us both wanting for a masculinity that subconsciously we sought for ourselves, but could only fleetingly grasp through others who seemed to have already attained it. We knew what we wanted and proudly thought we understood the dangers. He saw men die of AIDS – and was committed not to join them. Abruptly, we stopped hanging around each other so much after he met someone. One day I saw him again: we talked – he was HIV+. Things didn’t last with the so-called man of his dreams; as a kind of recovery and recompense through sex, he spent a few months getting wasted every weekend and going semi-inebriated to the clubs. One morning he woke up covered in dried semen.
Over the next few years, I watched as he slowly threw what was left of his life away: feeling destined to an early death, he became involved with a group of positive men who regularly formed a sort of bareback sex cult; this early phenomena would later lead directly to the condomless craze in gay porn films, beginning in 1999 – the year I left; and the practice of serosorting whereby positive gay men have unprotected sex with other positive men of a similar viral load; recently, this strategy has proved an abysmal failure with epidemic rates if hepatitis, drug-resistant gonorrhea, and the return of syphilis popping up specifically in HIV+ men. From a distance, I noticed his already slim frame getting even bonier. More startling though was his overall change in personality: what I loved about him was his fun-loving-nature and incomprehensible ability to see the good in nearly everything and everyone. Frequently I thought this annoying, but his cheerfulness often eased my fears. One day, that person was gone: first, he started wearing a large bull nose ring through a freshly pierced hole in his nasal septum; he shaved his head down to the skin; and I stopped seeing him at the dance clubs; instead, a mutual friend told me he was usually at one of the bathhouses or leather bars. Even though my own life was rapidly descending into a string of meaningless anonymous sexual encounters – at least I presumed, albeit falsely, that I was in a controlled descent – while he seemed to be crashing out of control. The last I time I saw him was in 1993 at the notorious Folsom Street Fair: he was practically naked and wearing a dog collar; a masked man held the leash and led him about. I couldn’t look anymore; almost exactly 5 years later, I would be doing much the same thing. He died the following year.
Deep inside, I think I always knew it wasn’t working, but I couldn’t leave. For me, the Castro became Jonestown. Fear replaced hope, and the promise of utopia turned into a living hell. When help arrived, and the fleeting chance to escape – only a handful of us left; the majority chose to remain behind and die. I was one of those. After they threw my body on the overloaded pyre, like the story of survival recounted by the reportedly alive Grand Duchess Anastasia, someone noticed that I moved and dragged my lifeless body away. Slowly, the physical injuries began to mend; the psychological ones: they took much longer. Afterwards, I try to make sense of it all. Did any of it have meaning? Where are my friends? And, why did they have to die?
Over twenty years later, I am becoming more like my long dead PTSD friend: haunted by memories that stick, unable to make sense out of senseless death, getting angry – especially at those I perceive as capitulators and collaborators. What transpired in those twenty-odd years? AIDS happened; for a while, it was like acting in a bad horror film, only everything was real: almost overnight, beautiful young men started to decompose while still alive. To this day, I have not been able to fully comprehend what happened. For instance, I will never forget visiting a friend dying of AIDS. I kept putting it off, I couldn’t face him; I couldn’t face death, or that, somehow, gay had gone wrong. A mutual friend finally got annoyed with me and said bluntly: “He doesn’t have long to live.” I walked into his apartment and the place smelled like the used dirty adult diapers his care-giver hadn’t taken out to the trash yet; he sat in a wheelchair, cheeks sunk in and unbelievably thin; a lot of that gorgeous blonde hair was gone; I couldn’t believe it; for he had been the solar system’s most radiant beautiful boy: lightly and eternally tanned, blue eyes that made the bright summer sky look cloudy, and a body that Michelangelo would have set in the most massive piece of marble he could find. Amidst his stunning physical magnificence, he never became conceited. That day I walked in, he looked at me and smiled as if a heavenly angel condescended to visit him. He stared at me with these big bulging eyes – and I couldn’t get past it. Where was the Adonis? Looking back, I was probably curt and distracted. I had no solace to give and I said good-bye. That was it.
Standing and doing absolutely nothing as so many died in front of me has left a good amount of guilt; but, it also is what motivates my almost every waking breath. I want their deaths to mean something; I want them to mean something to me; in a sense, my continued sanity depends on it. Author Randy Shilts once wrote:
“I don’t think that civil liberties are the most important thing. The gay political leadership is misguiding us by always talking about civil liberties. The most important thing for most gay men…is going to be just keeping sane in the face of all this suffering, because what I do know is going to happen is that we are going to be facing an incredible amount of untimely death…We need to begin gearing ourselves for it psychologically as human beings.”
That never happened. Many just treaded water and waited for the blood wave to pass over their heads; some got lucky and lasted long enough for science to invent new ways to keep us alive; some, especially the older ones, took shelter in little conclaves and attempted to pair up out of necessity – these are the ones who would later demand gay marriage. Except for a few who loved and lost – the dead are almost forgotten.
Today, I grapple with the larger meaning of it all; and, as a result: I am often sad. My memories incessantly center upon how swiftly I abandoned friends who I sensed as a drag: in every case, they were guys at least a couple of years older than me; therefore, they had seen more than and I and had come closer to the eventual realization that the whole gay experiment was a big disaster. Generally, they were in the process of checking-out; strangely, I sensed this as a weakness on their parts; or, at least signaling defeat and an ignominious return to the outside world. I couldn’t admit to what they had already half-recognized; I guess, at that time especially, a positive HIV status rendered an instant clarity of vision. Before he passed away, one friend revealed a story of horrendous abuse from his childhood – I didn’t believe him; shortly after that – he tried to crawl away from the scene, never quite making it, but ended up dying alone and disregarded. Looking back, there was so much buried inside myself that I never could have acknowledged the courage in someone else as they battled to deal with demons of the past. Anyway, even in the midst of all the crashing about me: I rather unwittingly understood that the perpetuation of the gay fantasy relied heavily on the shared ability for all those involved to remain in a perpetual dream state; occasionally, one of us would be shocked from sleep. But staying catatonic was infinitely preferable to facing the reality of my own still unresolved uncertainties, the deaths of so many, and that I was headed in the same direction; yet, I fool-heartedly believed that things would turn out differently for me. I didn’t have time to mourn for a few causalities. In a way, I thought some small losses were ultimately worth it –after all I was alive and free. So, I partied on, and, literally, almost danced on their graves.
Despite my experiences, I frequently return to the scenes of disaster – not to mourn, but to help shine the light of Truth on those still celebrating as if AIDS never happened; as if my friends never existed. For instance, at the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, the highest ritualized spectacle in all of gaydom, with a bag of free Bibles, I shout out something like “Jesus Loves You!;” only my voice barely raises above the throbbing beat from an over-amplified remixed version of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel.” Suddenly, I stop and watch as a tacky float, decorated with cheap tinsel, carrying a cadre of gyrating harnessed bears, somewhat unimpressively chugs by; my friends died for this? Scattered throughout the crowds are beaming couples holding pink cut-out hearts emblazoned with the words” “Just Married.” For the most part, they are my age or much older. I can’t feel happy for them: were my friends any less deserving of this happiness; did they love any less; or, is this all a complete illusion?
Although far fewer are currently dying of AIDS, in the gay community – the virus is everywhere. “In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released startling new data that showed HIV was still plaguing the gay community. While new HIV infections had remained steady in the general public between 2008 and 2010, infections had risen by an incredible 22 percent in young gay men. Gay men represented two-thirds of new infections. And nearly 6,000 gay men were dying of AIDS every year…According to the CDC, if HIV continues to spread at its current rates, more than half of college-aged gay men will have HIV by the age of 50.” In comparison, the estimated number of deaths in the US among gay men with AIDS rose steadily in the 1980s and early 90s, and then leveled at approximately 25,000 deaths in 1994; in 1992, AIDS became the number one cause of death for U.S. men ages 25 to 44. Since the epidemic began, an estimated 311,087 gay men with an AIDS diagnosis have died in the US. Many have forgotten, or simply don’t know; it’s no longer fashionable to cover the story – landmark made-for-TV movies like “An Early Frost” have become a distant memory. After all, no body dies of AIDS anymore.
We are now several generations removed from that hellish year of 1994. I cannot fault many of those, who were not even alive then, for not honoring the dead. Because, like me, they were raised drunk in a culture than cyclically sold gay poison as pabulum: I sang “Express Yourself” while they picked up the same tune twenty years later with “I Kissed a Girl.” However, I have become less patient with those who should supposedly know better: my fellow Christian exiles from the gay world. Some oddly make pronouncements such as this: “…[Christian] teaching certainly isn’t condemning all the things about ‘gay culture’ that give us those weepy chills when we see them at their best.” First, what “gay culture” are they referring to? Is it the first gay magazines and films of the 70s and 80s – that were always pornographic; those same images which served as propaganda – luring hordes of naive boys to seek out fantasy as reality in being gay– coaxing them directly into the bars and bathhouses that held only death. Or, perhaps it’s the way the gay community pulled together, especially during the first terrifying years when the plague was almost completely unexplained and hitting everyone with a remarkably quick and excruciatingly painful demise. But that had nothing to do with being gay – and everything to do with being human. During those days, I often saw the reemergence of a friend’s once dissociated relatives: a sister or cousin who suddenly returned to their lives – offering whatever compassion they could muster in the midst of extreme grief; were they any more or less empathetic because of their orientation?
Another too young to remember neo-gay Catholic said: “My friends and I joke that there’s a gay Catholic renaissance on, or actually a gay Christian renaissance on, and we’re proud to be at the forefront of it.” To begin with, there has never been a gay “renaissance” of any kind; like the waning Roman Empire, which took an excruciatingly long time to finally collapse, so called gay culture started to fall as soon as it arose: with the first case of AIDS appearing in 1981 – directly after the enormous initial social and political gains made by homosexuals during the upheaval of the 1960s; this inevitably took place as the sexual revolution morphed into the extreme hedonism of the late-70s; although, it’s widely done, the height of historical redaction is to incessantly praise Stonewall while entirely ignoring Fire Island. But, this goes part and parcel with contemporary gay mythology that selectively over-emphasizes the few moments of sanity in the gay experience while disregarding the pathological self-destruction.
Sometimes this sort of gay revisionism comes about because there is a personal inexperience with regards to the more heinous incidences and violent fetishes in the gay lifestyle, or simply because admitting that there is a great sickness within the heart of homosexuality, that perhaps, there is something sick inside of me as well; that the “disorder” of homosexuality speaks to my own disorder. In this vain, a rarity in the homosexual word, a gay male virgin, wrote this about me: “Joseph’s experience not only seems quite alien from that of the men and women who support same-sex marriage, it is quite alien from their experience. For that reason, he is an extremely unreliable source of information.” But who is a reliable source? From years of actually living it, I found that so called “mongamish” gay couples, especially with regards to men, are often middle-aged homosexuals who, like myself, eventually burned-out of the main-stream – usually due to over-sex and the resulting consequences of depression and disease, and then partnered out of necessity with other like-minded men. For the most part, these relationships, born out of desperation, are self-serving and co-dependent. The idea of homosexual monogamy is fleeting; in a study of 500 gay male couples in San Francisco: 45% had monogamous agreements, 47% had open agreements, and 8% reported discrepant agreements; the average age of participants was 41 years. In a more recent study of partnered gay men: 64% described agreements that, to varying degrees, allowed sex with outside partners.
This inability to see homosexuality and being “gay” for all its ugliness, points to an overall stubbornness of pride and a failure to comprehend a horror, that for even those who lived through it, is still somewhat a mystery; therefore, I try to always remain within the context of charity; because, many young gay men, including a few who have found their way back to the Church, are like those Imperial Roman citizens of the Eternal City: so far removed from the nasty bloodiness of the front lines, that the Emperors took it upon themselves to reenact the atrocity of war in the Coliseum; yet, it lost its danger, and the violence and death became distantly mythological. Then, it becomes about polemics; hence, the bizarre adherence of some to the gay label; and, even the stranger dislike for those who criticize this attachment: “This is frustrating and comes across as very patronizing because these are people who don’t have any insight into the experience of what it is to be gay telling you what it is or is not ok to talk about, and what it is and is not ok to call yourself.” Having some “insight” into what it is to be gay: it’s not something you want to join yourself to – even slightly. For, it meant destruction and death to those I loved. After all, you would not celebrate the thing that slaughtered someone special in your life; it’s similar to the consternation felt by the families of victims murdered by serial killers – while the psychopathic predators often gain cult celebrity status and their dead relatives are all but forgotten. Therefore, stating that one is gay gives glory to something which should be left to the ignominious dustbin of history. As for me, I once believed that because a few lost their life – that certainly didn’t mean that the gay dream was a lie – in a sense, it proved its validity: that they were willing to die for something. Now, I am working through a purgatory of regret: if I could take it all back, and that meant my friends would return to life, I would do it a thousand times; but, it doesn’t matter anymore – for they are gone; and thus, herein lies my punishment: when I realize they are really gone.
“Relationship Characteristics and Motivations behind Agreements among Gay Male Couples: Differences by Agreement Type and Couple Serostatus”
Colleen C. Hoff, PhD, Sean C. Beougher, M.A., Deepalika Chakravarty, M.S., Lynae A. Darbes, PhD, and Torsten B. Neilands, PhD
Published in final edited form as: AIDS Care. 2010 Jul; 22(7): 827–835. doi: 10.1080/09540120903443384
“Sexual Agreements among Gay Male Couples”
Colleen H. Hoff, PhD and Sean C. Beougher, MA1
Published in final edited form as: Arch Sex Behav. 2010 Jun; 39(3): 774–787. Published online 2008 Aug 7. doi: 10.1007/s10508-008-9393-2
Illustration by Gustave Doré for Canto XXVIII from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
Great post and very well written. Thank you for sharing your experience.
I am sorry you were in so much pain. You are a hope to many.
Thank you for telling the truth.
Your writing is so full of wisdom, I have to read it slowly.
I have referred many people to your blog.
Firstly, thankyou for being so open. Your candidness, among other things, enables you to be an incredibly compelling mentor. As someone who has read your book and follows your blog, when I read posts like this one I long to ask the question, what about true happiness? Is that a possibility for gay men who give up their urges and adhere to Christianity? Or for anyone who was a slave to lust? Or rather, are you like your friend from Vietnam who left the battlefield but remained haunted by tragedy and loss? You've been extricated, but have you been restored? I understand; the loss of those we love does (and should) instill us with a permanent sense of pain, but must we always feel broken inside, as though something essential is missing? I'm not asking about momentary joy, however great. I'm asking about inmost fulfillment.
I think any of us with any sort of “past” have moments of deep regret, even holy tears. Thank God you made it through and are telling your story. We need to hear this perspective, and if you reach only one heart, it was worth it. I know you have reached many. Deep wounds require deep healing, and I pray for your continued journey to whole ness.
Thank you for the kind words; perhaps this essay that wrote will answer some of those questions: https://josephsciambra.com/2015/01/few-are-chosen-why-those-with-same-sex.html
Joseph, how did you feel about 2 “gay Catholics” being included as speakers at the recent Courage Conference?
Thanks Joseph for sharing your pain with those who could never understand the depth of misery, sickness and desolation that you must have gone through.
You are right, Dr. Janet Smith's references to the inclusion of two “gay Catholics” were out of line. One soul lost, is one too many.
I hope Courage will pursue healing through holiness and the Catechism of the Catholic Church – if we don't recognize our sin, how can we ask for forgiveness and healing?
God bless you for your courage.
Deanna – here was my response:
Thanks for the link as to how the truth of the Catechism of the Catholic Church helped you understand the gravity of your sinful lifestyle and how you found healing.
I have shared this testimony with many people who say that the Catholic Church is too dogmatic and not compassionate to homosexual persons.
Your explanation of how the guidelines and teaching of the Catholic Church helped you find healing is awesome. Blessings to you.
Joseph, I am sorry you have experienced so much pain and suffering. Remember, Christ is the Just Judge, and although your friends may be gone, they are not forgotten. Pray for them, continue to heal, and let God take care of the rest. Remember The Good Thief, who, at the moment of his death, recognized The Truth of Love, in all His Glory, and believed. Continue to witness to The Truth of Love with the understanding that Love, rightly ordered, can make everything new again. Our Hope Is in Christ, do not lose Hope.
Could I ask a few questions Joseph?
Of the people you speak about in this article,how many were rejected by their families and communities for being gay?
We’re you yourself rejected by your family for being gay?
I’m wondering if maybe we could all acepted each other as children of God.